09 October 2005

francesco d'assisi

For many Christian traditions, this past Tuesday, 4 October, was a day set aside to commemorate the great medieval saint, Francis of Assisi.

So great was Francis' influence and piety, that he continued to hold a significant place in the religious imagination, even within the churches of the Reformation. While the Lutheran confessions criticized various aspects of later Franciscan theology, they held up Francis himself as among the "holy Fathers" (along with Anthony, Bernard, and Dominic) who "believed that through faith they were accounted righteous and had a gracious God because of Christ, not because of their own spiritual exercises" (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4; see also Article 27).

Francis was born in the town of Assisi around 1181, the son of a prosperous merchant, Piero Bernardone. The rest of his life story is fairly well known: his vision of Christ calling him to serve the church, his eventual renunciation of his possessions and inheritance before the bishop, his mission to preach the Gospel to the poor, the growth of his little band of brothers, his pilgrimage and visit with the Sultan during the crusades, his devotion to the goodness of God's creation, and so on. The brothers were later joined in ministry by Chiara Favarone (Clare of Assisi) and their service of teaching and mercy to the poor began to grow into more organized religious "orders."

As the order grew into the thousands, so also grew the problems, confusions, and tensions that attend the growth of any organization, particularly one so rooted the very personal and idiosyncratic vocation of a few men and women. Moreover, since the time of Francis' initial calling, he lacked any kind of continued affirmation of that call, except through the eventual approbation of church authorities. Thus Francis was beset by various doubts, worried a great deal about the character of the order as it grew and evolved, and at times found himself on the edge of despair regarding whether he had rightly heard and followed God's call.

It was in this context of spiritual depression and doubt, as well as ongoing physical illness and weakness, that Francis experienced a vision of the crucified Jesus and found himself able to confess quite literally, in the words of Paul, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). I've never been quite sure what to make of Francis' stigmata, though I suspect that even if it were a psycho-somatic manifestation resulting from profound and intense meditation upon the sufferings of Jesus, there is no reason we should necessarily discount such a manifestation as also a divine gift of grace, suited to Francis' own temperament and needs.

Whatever the case, the wounds appeared late in his life, only two years prior to Francis' death - two years marked by significant illness, physical suffering, and the gradual loss of his sight. Francis never made a public spectacle of the marks or of his other sufferings, but was cared for lovingly by Clare. During his last months Francis wrote his "Canticle of Brother Sun" and remained in prayer until he, at last, called for his close circle of brothers, whom he instructed to lay him naked upon the "naked earth" and thus he fell into the embrace of our dear sister, bodily death.

Francis' death was, thereby, marked with the same simplicity and boldness with which he had lived his life. Thomas of Celano, his first biographer, writes that Francis "had a strong, sweet, lyrical, and clear voice while his manner of speaking could be peaceful yet fiery and direct." Though Francis' ministry was often prophetic in character, he delivered his message without bitterness and backed it up with the piety of his life, a life lived, it seems, with an intensity and directness rather distinct from the sentimentality and piety that has sometimes grown up around his memory.

My own affection for the holy man of Assisi probably dates from high school, when I first read G.K. Chesterton's beautifully written and classic account of Francis' life and times. Since then I've read various sources, ranging from the first and second lives of Francis by Thomas of Celano, dating from the 13th century, up to Julien Green's well-written biography, God's Fool (Harper & Row 1985), among others. There are, of course, various film versions of Francis' life as well, from the overly-pious 1961 Francis of Assisi (based on the Louis De Wohl novel) to Zeferelli's hippy-dippy 1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon (which nonetheless has its charms) and the more recent, gritty and historically realistic Francesco (from 1989, starring Mickey Rourke of all people).

My friendship and acquaintance over the years with several Franciscans has also fed my interest in the life of the saint who has inspired so much devotion to Jesus Christ, lived out in faith-filled acts of mercy toward those in spiritual and physical need. While I can't claim to fully understand the enigmatic, powerful, moving, and at times frustrating man of Assisi, I do continue to find his life provocative and oddly captivating.